Dublin-based journalist O’Clery presents an archetypal American success story, a rags-to-riches account with a twist.
Few people had heard of Charles Francis Feeney in 1988 when Forbes outed him as immensely wealthy. He was, the magazine reported, richer than Mr. Murdoch or The Donald, richer than David Rockefeller. But O’Clery reveals that Chuck Feeney was personally worth merely a few million—Feeney had managed, through his French wife, to transfer, in strict secrecy, his considerable wealth to offshore charitable foundations. Born during the Depression, Feeney was an Irish-American kid from New Jersey, educated at Cornell on the GI Bill. A natural, bright entrepreneur, he devised ways of selling liquor and gray-market cars duty-free to service men abroad. Business was good, and soon he was selling brandy and other extravagant treats to Japanese tourists in Hawaii; the money continued to pour in as he expanded his market to Hong Kong and beyond. But despite his growing wealth, Feeney reverted to his social conscience and to active philanthropy. This dominant retailer of brand-name goods kept his own name concealed, and the code of omerta applied to all who dealt with his secret foundations. With the line between the donor and the charities often porous, subterfuges shrouded major unsolicited gifts to Feeney’s alma mater, to Sinn Féin and to many other beneficiaries around the world (between 1998 and 2006, his Atlantic Philanthropies “provided $220 million for a series of building and scholarship projects and health initiatives in Vietnam.”) A decade ago, the cloak and checkbook operation was finally exposed. Feeney, who flies economy class, wears a $15-dollar watch and uses plastic bags for briefcases, was ready to provide a public example for other wealthy people. There was a split with his former partners when the declining business was sold at the top of the market, but Feeney’s ex-associates, now immensely rich, do not seem to have adopted his principles.
A smart business book detailing some vicissitudes of retailing, wrapped in a vivid biography of an engaging tycoon.